More than a month after Zimbabwe went to the polls, electoral authorities on Friday finally announced a result in the presidential race: a do-over. The Zimbabwe Election Commission said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won 47.9% of the vote to President Robert Mugabe's 43.2%. That means that, officially, no candidate has won an outright victory of more than 50%, a scenario which, under Zimbabwean electoral law, mandates a second round run-off within three weeks. "Since no candidate has received the majority of the valid vote cast... a second election shall be held on a date to be advised by the commission," chief elections officer Lovemore Sekeramayi told reporters in Harare.
The admission that Mugabe did not win the March 29 poll is not, as some have suggested, a landmark concession on the part of the regime that has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years. Rather, it signals Mugabe's intention to hold onto power. Reacting to the result, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which says its own calculations show its leader won more than 50%, angrily rejected the result. MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti claimed at a press conference in South Africa that the vote count had been rigged. "Morgan Tsvangirai is the President of the republic of Zimbabwe to the extent that he won the highest number of votes," he added. "Morgan Tsvangirai has to be declared the President of Zimbabwe."
The election commission is appointed by Mugabe's Zanu-PF regime and its independence has therefore been suspect. The rationale behind the regime's month-long wait before releasing the result and, then, its announcement of another round seems simple: delay and regroup. Mugabe's regime indicated a few days after the poll that it knew Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe. (The state-controlled Herald newspaper reported Mugabe had failed to win reelection and predicted a second round runoff.) Meanwhile, the Election Commission announced that the MDC had won a majority in parliament and a few days ago confirmed that result after a recount.
The regime could hardly have been surprised that it lost the vote Zimbabwe is a country with 80% unemployoment, 100,000% inflation and life expectancy in the mid 30s. But with a month to come to terms with that idea, it had time to gather its forces for a counterattack.
How does it plan to do that? Since the election, militias claiming loyalty to the regime have fanned out across the country, intimidating, beating and even killing opposition supporters. The MDC says around 20 of its members have died, a number impossible to verify because foreign journalists continue to be banned from entering Zimbabwe. But neither side disputes that hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested, nor that the seizure of farms belonging to opposition supporters has resumed, nor that several foreign journalists have been arrested and deported. This nationwide campaign of repression seems aimed at coercing support for Mugabe, and providing him with a sufficient electoral boost to win a runoff.
Such disdain for the democratic process raises a question: why bother with elections at all? Other African tyrannies have dispensed with the awkward trial of popular votes altogether, and ruled as unapologetic autocracies. So why the need for a veneer of respectability, however thin, in Zimbabwe? The answer lies in the psychology of Mugabe and his fellow liberation leaders, many of whom came from a background of elite academia. Mugabe himself has seven degrees, most of them earned during the 11 years he spent in prison when the country was called Rhodesia.
Though their regimes may be thuggish, these men are not thugs themselves. They are intellectuals and, as firm believers that their various opponents are merely puppets of the same imperial enemy they have always faced, it is intellectually crucial that they beat their former colonial masters at their own game. Western democracy, as they see it, is hollow. Western governments that were democratically elected at home pursued autocratic colonialism abroad. Even after the end of the age of imperialism, neo-imperialists funneled support to compliant dictators around the world, and relentlessly attempted to fix the rules of the global economy in their favor. According to this view, employing a little election tinkering here and a little intimidation there is merely playing by rules set by the West.
Whatever the merits of that argument, it is unlikely that Mugabe's regime will make the same mistake twice. One longtime resident of the capital of Harare warned in an e-mail a few days ago that Zimbabwe's opposition is in danger of losing its best chance at making a change. "What I find most frightening is that already the opposition and elements of the international community are subsiding back into apathy," he wrote. "I am hearing people saying, 'Well, you know, he'll get away with it this time, but he won't last forever, and there'll be another chance in five years.' There won't be. If he doesn't go, there will not be another chance. There will not be another election in five years' time unless Zanu-PF is the only party contesting. There will be no MDC everyone who opposes Zanu-PF will be in jail or in exile. There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity. This month. Perhaps next. After that, the country will be stolen from us for good."